Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Would civil disobedience work?

  1. Aug 2, 2005 #1
    would civil disobedience work?
    henry david thoreau argued that for the most effective way of changing our government is to remove ourselves from it, i.e. not paying taxes and even going to prison if need be.

    i believe that is not practical in todays society, (family, gang rapes in prison, loss of property, etc...)

    a topic i want to write about for my english essay.

    help me out with ideas against civil disobedience. would it be feasible in todays society? whats the difference between thoreau's time and today?

    for the people who overanalyze my intentions to post this thread (ppl who think im too lazy to come up w/my own ideas), don't respond, i just need a few key pts or perspectives that i haven't thought of (yet).
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 2, 2005 #2


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Well, i feel civil disobedience isn't all that practical anymore when it comes to serious disobedience (not this protesting for a few hours and throwing rocks at police kinda stuff). As the population increases and the government becomes larger and the value of "shock" increaess, it becomes harder for people to commit meaningful acts of civil disobedience.

    As the population increases, people are less able to grab any attention and normally have to compete with a lot of other groups for any sort of attention. As our governemnt grows, it takes more to get someones attention. You get near the point where you practically need to set off a bomb at a federal building to get any attention from the government. The shock value of protest also, in my opinion, has been a growing requirement. We're so use to every group in the country protesting and creating riots that we dont really care anymore. You unfortunately need to do unimaginable things to create some sort of change. Plus of course, these unimaginable things become much harder because most people are scared to do them because they have so much to cling to in their lives like their jobs or houses and possessions and money and such. If we could all go out and do something insane and be assured that everything we own and love will still be at home when we come back, it'd be a lot more easier!

    Thats just my opinion however.
  4. Aug 2, 2005 #3


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Gold Member

    The only example in American history I can think of where civil disobedience really worked was the non-violent protests of the civil rights movement. King and his followers refusing to follow segregation laws or disperse when they were peacefully gathered and being thrown into prison and abused by police really seemed to get the public's attention. I think part of the reason it worked is that they were protesting laws that were very obviously unjust. Thoreau went to prison because he didn't want to pay any taxes. I can guarantee you that doing so isn't going to result in any change to the federal tax codes. Even when entire militia groups decide they aren't going to pay taxes any more, it doesn't work.

    Then again, Thoreau didn't seem too concerned about utility. He thought that the conscientious citizen has a moral obligation not to follow laws that he feels are unjust, and not to pay taxes if they are being used to fund programs that he finds immoral, whether or not any change would be effected through doing so.
  5. Aug 2, 2005 #4
    Here's a point that adds to the discussion:

    A majority of people are no longer self-sufficient therefore they need others to work together in order to get food, power, clothing etc.

    Any significant civil disobedience is likely to disrupt commerce and the ability to work efficiently and hence increased civilian unrest can cascade into a worsening environment (resulting in increased civil disobedience etc, etc)
  6. Aug 2, 2005 #5
  7. Aug 2, 2005 #6


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper
    Gold Member
    Dearly Missed

    You could extend that to the Stonewall riots as well.
  8. Aug 2, 2005 #7
    actually Thoreau felt that using "lawful means to change the law" (i.e. protests, amendments , legislature, voting) was too slow. That the government should be petitioning its citizens on which laws to change.

    So he did not advocate peaceful assembly to protest.
    he advocated just removing ourselves from society, not paying taxes, and possibly going to jail to make a political statement. i assumed he hoped for a snowball effect, so other ppl would just remove themselves and not pay taxes. Gov't does not have the resources to jail a huge portion of the population. i seriuosly doubt that the number of individualists would ever reach the critical mass required to set off a chain reaction.
  9. Aug 2, 2005 #8
    here's what i got so far, i dissected and tried to counter every point in 1 pg. of his essay, i got maybe 3 or 4 more pages of thoreau to analyze and counter.

    hopefully you can kind of get a feel of this topic and how it ties in with modern society?

    In Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience”, he spews theories about changing the government that are technically possible but unfeasible for citizens living in America today. In short, if a citizen disagrees with the current government, Thoreau expects him or her to completely remove themselves from society by refusing to obey any laws or policies of the current government. His intention is that this act of extreme individualism will ultimately force the government to change. In order to prevent confusion between Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” with real civil disobedience, which includes peaceful protests and etc…, I will more accurately refer to Thoreau’s theory as “extreme individualism”. About 150 years have passed since Thoreau’s time. His theories of extreme individualism to change the government are inapplicable to today’s society, not that they were ever successful in his day either. Before taking severe action we must consider the consequences and who is affected by these consequences. Obviously a single man, or should I say “worthless loser”?, with no money, no property, and no family to feed can embark on fruitless gambles with his life that the average bread winner with 2.5 kids can not take on. I assume of course that the average man with 2.5 kids wants to provide continuing food, shelter, and necessities for his family.

    “Literature for Composition” has an excerpt from “Civil Disobedience” containing the essence of Thoreau’s weakly founded argument. In this excerpt Thoreau begins with an analogy of a neighbor who has cheated you out of money and in order to get satisfaction, you must take “severe action” to see that cheating never happens again. Thoreau then tells us that from action we get change and that change will drastically divide people and society. According to him “action” will separate the good from the evil. The real purpose of this prelude is to psychologically condition the reader into accepting dire consequences that will arise from instigating a political war against Thoreau’s ultimate evil, our government. It is important to note that Thoreau’s government and today’s government are two very different entities. The American government is run and structured according to its citizens. American society and citizens living in the 1850’s are unalike society and citizens living in 2005. Of the five major revolutions that have taken place since the existence of homo-sapiens, almost half of them took place after Thoreau’s death in 1862; the Industrial revolution and the Technological revolution. (The other three revolutions are the stone, bronze, and agricultural age.) There is no way Thoreau could have anticipated the impact that the Industrial and Technological revolution has had on the way of life for American citizens. Therefore any theory that Thoreau came up with should be critically analyzed for its applicability in today’s society.

    In the second paragraph Thoreau criticizes the government for its unwillingness to accept change or reform. Thoreau asks “Why does it not cherish its wise minority?” First of all, this self proclaimed “wise minority” is just a minority. Whether or not they are wise is subjective. Secondly, because this “minority” believes that they’re wise, they ASSUME that their reasons for reform are just and because of this possibly blind assumption of righteousness, they feel they deserve to be held in the highest esteem by the government. Does the government not cherish its minority? Only if it doesn’t include affirmative action, Fujii Sei vs. State of California (property rights for Asians), the 19th amendment which granted women the right to vote, or the 24th amendment which got rid of poll taxes as a way of limiting the voting rights of blacks. I could go on and on about how much respect our government has shown for minorities. Thoreau also asks “Why does it not encourage its citizens to put out its faults, and do better than it would have them?” To answer this question I ask a few rhetorical questions of my own. Ever heard of petitioning for a bill? What about running for public office? What about voting for a public official who will take your issue to the House and Senate? How can the proponents of extreme individualism be so unknowledgeable and ignorant to believe that the government does not encourage its citizens to take action in changing the government to how they see fit? In case these mindless followers of Thoreau are unaware of current events, there is a campaign across America encouraging citizens to vote. I know in California that voting is at an all time low. During the recall election in California, both parties encouraged people to vote even though the votes might go to their opponent. On numerous occasions I watched prime-time news reporting on voter apathy and seeing many politicians from every party encouraging citizens of age to vote. How about all these flyers that are posted around during election time that say “I vote, therefore I matter”?
  10. Aug 2, 2005 #9


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Gold Member
    Dearly Missed

    Civil disobedience works when the embedding society is at the cusp of change and needs a trigger. Then the actions of a Ghandi or a Rosa Parks can form a tipping point and cause a cascade of large scale effects. But Britain had to have a bad conscience about colonialism and the US a bad conscience about Jim Crow to make it work.
  11. Aug 2, 2005 #10


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper
    Gold Member
    Dearly Missed

    So very true..
    The Norwegian population in general weren't really aware of the problems of the indigenous Sami population before the 1970's, and their struggles for various rights to natural resources and educative reforms culminated in the illegal Alta riots in 1981
    (protests against the building of huge dams seriously endangering the livelihood of the Samis).
  12. Aug 2, 2005 #11
    I agree. You also need massive numbers of people partiticpating. The
    above ideas of Thoreau are meaningless to the larger society if only
    a handful of people participate. People move to Alaska and live off the
    land regularly. You don't see ay social changes whatsoever ocurring as
    a result.

    Furthermore, one has to question Thoreau's logic in stating that such
    radicalism is needed at all. The representative republic is doing a
    pretty good job when compared to anything that even Thoreau has
    proposed as an alternative. I don't think it would have worked in his
    time either (radical indivdualism to change government.)

    (I am a beleiver by the way in radical individualism- just not as an
    effective way to change government.)
  13. Aug 3, 2005 #12
    would Thoreau's theory of not paying taxes work in todays society?

    whats the specific length of imprisonment if we don't pay taxes and etc..?
  14. Aug 4, 2005 #13
    No. It would appear that if you participated in society's basic infrastructure
    but willingly didn't pay taxes, you're not supporting your portion of the burden.

    It would be legally acceptable to not participate in taxable activities, but
    the morality of such a course is questionable. Can you cross the street
    without benefitting from the stoplight?

    If you really want to disconnect, you should do exactly that- disconnect.

    Go hunt and trap your own food and build your own house on land that
    doesn't belong to anyone.

    This is highly complex and only a qualified tax attorney can answer it.
    If you did not comiit a crime in not paying your taxes, there is no jail
    only monetary fines.
    Last edited: Aug 4, 2005
  15. Aug 4, 2005 #14


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    No it wont. Its done on way too large of a scale in the first place and it obviously doesn't work (fed. income tax in the US that is). I'll ask my father what the punishment for not filing a return is, hes a tax preparer so I'm sure he will know.
  16. Aug 4, 2005 #15


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Definitely. The civil rights issues we had were just, OBVIOUSLY wrong. Its just unthinkable that people could be treated so poorly simply because of how they were born. The issues of today are just impossible to compare to those sorts of problems so its unlikely you can make any real mass civil disobedience work. For example, the abortion issue (although this may not be the best example). Theres a clear justification on both sides so its not likely that you can get a huge majority of the country to think "yah! good for them!" if there were a mass uprising in the name of pro choice or anti abortion. Civil rights, on the other hand, did garner that support.

    Poverty in the US (American poverty, not overseas) is also another example where you can't garner as much support from people like you did with civil rights. Poverty is something you can get out of, people do it all the time. If you looked at the fight against poverty, there is a great deal of hypocricy present and an underlying contempt for poor people. Unlike the civil rights movements and many other great movements of history, no one is readily prepared to die for the sake of poverty and no one is readily killing people to keep people in poverty. You also have marches for poverty lead by elitests who are worth tens of millions of dollars leading on a bunch of middle class and upper middle class people. Its just hard to imagine any decent uprisings when the people at the "head of the resistance" go home to nice 2 story houses or their yachts in some cases. In contrast, most great uprisings have peopel "going home" to the same problem they are protesting against. They are actually living out the problem. I think thats where you can garner a lot of power when you actually are living the problem or are prepared to face serious injury or death in the name of the problem.
  17. Aug 9, 2005 #16
    It seems like it would work better for smaller issues like medical marijuana. That's an issue that has a good amount of public support from all sides of the social and politcal spectrum. If you start seing enough cancer patients hauled off to jail on CNN, things will begin to change.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook